Arts + Entertainment

Twice threatened

In the land of the noonday sun, there lives a noonday snail. The noonday globe snail, Petera clarkia Nantahala is a medium-sized snail, about three-quarters inch wide and one-half inch high. This little slimeball is known only from about 2 miles of high calcareous cliffs in the Nantahala Gorge in Western North Carolina.

art frHeading west out of Bryson City, just before the highway narrows into a twisting two-lane road, a small, ramshackle hut watches over the crossroads of Southern Appalachia — a last stop before descending into the remote Nantahala Gorge ahead, or the desolate beauty of Fontana Lake to the right. 

The shack, wedged between junk cars and a rundown trailer, has seen better days, on a property that has seen better years. But, upon closer inspection, a friendly face sits behind a counter filled with knickknacks and the wafting smell of boiled peanuts.  

“Well, I just love boiled peanuts,” 71-year-old Tommy Von smiled. “I had to make a living somehow.”

art frWhen he didn’t have the money to purchase a banjo, Joshua Grant took matters into his own hands.

“I couldn’t afford what I wanted, so I decided to build one,” he said.

A native of the Nantahala Gorge, the 31-year-old recently launched Grant Custom Banjos, a business that constructs handmade instruments as unique and full of character as Grant himself. 

When Nantahala Outdoor Center burst onto the whitewater scene 40 years ago, it became ground zero for a new world of paddling — one where boundaries of the sport were being pushed, old paradigms were being broken, and new realities were being forged.

Paddlers wanted to be a part of it, and as a result NOC rapidly amassed a deep bench of the most elite canoeists and kayakers in the country. It was one of the few places where paddlers could make their living at their sport.

“The cadre of people we had here was unbelievable in those early days,” said John Burton, a former paddling Olympian and one of the early NOC pioneers who still works at the company today.

The dizzying concentration of paddling greats at NOC created a buzz around the Nantahala that was integral to its early success.

“This has been the center of expertise in the paddling world,” one of NOC’s founders Payson Kennedy said.

NOC was appealing to paddlers who reveled in the minutiae of the sport — particularly as they experimented with new ways of teaching the growing masses, said Bunny Johns, another NOC pioneer and one of the top female paddlers in the country in the 1970s and early ‘80s.

Staffers would spend hours dissecting the mechanics and physics of paddling in order to hone their teaching techniques — translating the fluid, almost intuitive body movements into anatomical step-by-step instructions for beginners. Take the roll, for example, a move kayakers yearn to master.

“Before, it was like, ‘You do your body like this,’” Johns said, rotating her body and lunging her arms in the mock-movement of a kayak roll.

Over dinner, instructors would share strategies for getting students to keep their head down through the roll, or how to pick up with their knee.

“They pioneered a fairly elegant way to teach people how to do the roll,” Johns said. “It was so exciting that people talked about it all the time.”

By year three, six of the paddlers from the 1972 U.S. Olympic team were staffers at NOC, launching a tradition of greatness on the Nantahala that persists today.

Kennedy admits he can’t take credit for the strategy, however.

“It just kind of happened,” he said.

What began as an accident proved an invaluable business strategy.

“It established real street credibility,” said Mark Singleton, the head of NOC’s marketing department from 1990 to 2002.

Come to NOC, and you would be paddling among the greats. But by the 1990s, the company was getting further removed from that aura.

“You had to go back to the first 1972 Olympics to get that,” Singleton said.

Not wanting to rest on past laurels, NOC leaders realized they needed to proactively position themselves at the center of the elite paddling world.

Further, the paddling competition of the 1996 summer Olympics would be staged on the nearby Ocoee River. It was a time to shine, and an opportunity they didn’t want to squander.

“We wanted to have a big presence around that close-by Olympics,” said Wayne Dickert, a top national paddler and whitewater author who worked at NOC for two decades.

The challenge, however, was to consciously replicate the natural attraction and draw NOC had for pro paddlers in its early days. NOC no longer had a lock on the river outfitter market for paddlers wanting to make their living on the water while training. There were other places they could go and have access to whitewater as a job perk.

To lure them, NOC put up the money to hire and pay a director for the Nantahala Racing Club in the early 1990s and continuing through 1996. Anyone racing under the banner of the club would have access to a formal instructor, training regimen and organizer.

“Before, it was just a bunch of NOC staffers, a bunch of guys who said ‘Hey, we are the Nantahala Racing Club,’” Dickert said.

The plan worked. Ultimately, six out of the seven paddlers on the 1996 Olympic Team trained at NOC.

“It was a renewal of NOC’s commitment to the highest levels of the sport. It gave us something we could really hang out hat on in terms of our marketing,” Singleton said. “It didn’t only drive business, although it was certainly very successful in that, but it also helped to reinforce an athletic culture.”

The man tasked with making it happen was Joe Jacobi, who was hired as that first-ever director of the Nantahala Racing Team. Jacobi knew first hand what a great place NOC was to work while training. Jacobi came to NOC as a dishwasher in 1989 while training as an Olympic hopeful for the ’92 games.

“It was the perfect job to do while training,” Jacobi said, who washed dishes in the morning and evening and filled his days with river workouts.

Jacobi was 19 when he came to NOC, and he describes those early years as magical. He lived in company housing, had a company meal plan, used the company laundry. He didn’t have to worry about the hassles of normal life, like grocery shopping or commuting to work. His life was self-contained and revolved around the river.

“The support of the NOC community, I couldn’t put words on what that meant to me,” Jacobi said.

One of the biggest perks he remembers: the company meal plan.

“When you are training, you get hungry a lot, and the whole food thing was very appealing to us,” Jacobi said.

Aside from the food itself was the dinner table conversation.

“The quality of conversation we would get into about kayaking and paddling and how paddling was taught and sold and how you would accomplish results on the elite side of it was stimulating and engaging,” Jacobi said.

Meanwhile, the star paddlers were worth their weight in gold when it came to NOC’s appeal for guests. Sutton Bacon, who would later become NOC’s president and CEO, paddled on the Nantahala as a child during those years. Bacon ticked off the Olympic paddlers he rubbed elbows with as a boy while paddling on the same river as them — there’s been 22 Olympic paddlers on NOC’s staff in all its 40-year history.

“I remember NOC vividly in the ‘90s, which in many ways was the heyday of NOC,” Bacon said. “Part of it I would have to caveat as nostalgia, but there was an electricity. All the paddling experts who were writing the books and producing videos were NOC staff members. That level of energy was probably the biggest remembrance as an NOC guest years ago that I want to make sure we replicate today.”

Horace Holden remembers the deal like it was yesterday.

He set out from Atlanta with a few blank checks in his pocket and a portable typewriter on the back seat of his car. He checked in to his favorite room in the 14-unit Tote ‘n’ Tarry motel, a mom-and-pop on the banks of the Nantahala River that catered to paddlers, and waited for an innocuous moment to strike up a conversation with the owner, Vincent Gassaway.

“I didn’t want him to think I was very interested,” Holden recalled. “I said, ‘How did your summer go?’ and he said, ‘Not too well.’ I said, ‘Well, you’ve never thought of selling this place have you?’ And he said, ‘Well I’ve thought about it.’”

A few minutes later, Holden went back to his room, typed up a contract and wrote a $1,000 check as earnest money to buy Gassaway’s motel, gas station and 40 acres on the river.

Forty year later, as Holden toured the grounds of the Nantahala Outdoor Center flashing his signature charismatic smile to the throngs of tourists and seasonal employees already swarming the place in these early days of summer, it’s easy to see how Holden transformed the isolated gorge into a bustling outfitter’s campus and one of the most successful river operations in the country.

He’ll claim the recipe for success lay with the Nantahala itself. But in fact, it was Holden’s own infectious idealism that carried the vision forward.

Holden had been staging paddling races on the Nantahala River since 1969. By 1971, the race was attracting hundreds of paddlers eager for competition venues in the growing sport of whitewater.

“The third year I said ‘Let’s call it the Southeastern championship,’” Holden recalled. “They said ‘You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Why not? It’s the Southeast.’”

If Holden can think it up, he’s apt to try it.

Years later, Holden learned that Gassaway had bragged about the deal to the owner of a filling station up the road.

“Finally, I found somebody who was fool enough to buy the place,” Gassaway allegedly said of Holden.

Holden simply had a hunch — a hunch something here would work. What exactly, he wasn’t quite sure, but something.

At the time, Holden ran a summer camp in Georgia, and originally envisioned the Nantahala as a great outpost for his camp. Or maybe as a whitewater teaching center and paddling clinics for canoe clubs.

For good measure, Holden figured he could always serve up guided raft trips to help cover the annual mortgage.

But Holden, who was dedicated to running his summer camp, realized he needed a partner. He turned to his childhood friend, Payson Kennedy. The two had attended church together as boys.

“He was honest as the day was long,” Holden said, when asked why he picked Kennedy. Plus, Holden thought, Kennedy worked at Georgia Tech and had his summers off, giving Kennedy flexibility to oversee the yet-to-be-determined venture on the Nantahala.

“I asked him ‘Would you like to start a little canoeing operation?’” Holden recounted.

Kennedy was already looking for a lifestyle change and was about to go work for Outward Bound wilderness school when Holden approached him. Kennedy sold his house to raise money to become a co-founder of NOC along with Holden. The two would ultimately remain the majority stockholders for 40 years.

When asked about how he knew it would work, Holden says he didn’t.

“You can’t know. You can never know,” Holden said.

Somehow, though, it seems like he did.

When Payson and Aurelia Kennedy quit their jobs in Atlanta, cashed out their retirement, packed up their four children and headed for the wild and rugged Nantahala River 40 years ago, their mothers weren’t sure what had gotten into them.

The idea that tourists would pay $10 a head to go rafting down the river — enough of them to put food on the family’s table no less — sounded ludicrous.

“It seemed like a harebrain plan,” Aurelia admitted.

They had a fleet of just four rafts and used the family van to transport river runners that first year. They lived on savings and hope while scrapping out a vision of a paddling outpost.

“The only accounting was the checkbook,” Payson recalled. “I didn’t even keep account of how many people we took, but I made an estimate at the end of the first year we took 800 down the Nantahala and 400 down the Chattooga — which is less than we take in one day now.”

By year three, however, they were still losing money. Even Aurelia had begun to have her doubts.

“When I was in charge of three restaurants and four children, Payson had to listen to me have some flying fits those first years,” said Aurelia, who found a teaching job in nearby Andrews to supplement the family.

Indeed, it wasn’t easy. Payson and Aurelia slogged through 80- to 100-hour work weeks trying to realize their dream. Along with the raft trips, the fledgling Nantahala Outdoor Center had a small motel, a gas station, restaurants and a paddling school.

“It was erratic business,” Payson said. “Everybody did everything. We didn’t have specific jobs. If motel rooms needed cleaning, we cleaned motel rooms. I was once the breakfast cook. But, it was such a fun atmosphere. Everybody had a good time together even though it was hard work and long hours.”

The kids —  ages 10, 12, 14 and 16 that first year on the river — were expected to pull their weight. They washed dishes, made beds in the motel, guided raft trips and took care of horses in the stable. By the second year, the kids got $20 a week, plus room and board of course, Payson added.

It wasn’t until nearly a decade later, when the company cleared $1 million in annual revenue for the first time, that Aurelia’s mother relented her initial doubts. Years would pass before Payson’s mother confessed to squirreling away savings during those early years in anticipation of bailing her son out when he had to throw in the towel and come back home.

The couple, joined by a love of paddling and the outdoor lifestyle, were as committed to each other as they were to NOC. They had their first date at 14, and never seemed to get over that teenage love affair.

As they flipped through an old family photo album at their kitchen table last week, Aurelia planted her hand on a picture of Payson taken in 1972, his shaggy brown beard and tanned skin looking as wild and rugged as the river he called home.

“Isn’t he handsome?” Aurelia said.

The page turned and landed on a photo of Aurelia resting against a large boulder taken in that same era.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” countered Payson, who’s about to turn 80.

As the Nantahala Outdoor Center stares down its 40th anniversary, few companies, let alone a river outfitter with such humble beginnings, could claim the kind of growth NOC has witnessed. It’s come a long way from the four rafts and family van used by the Kennedys to shuttle those first guests down the Nantahala. Today, NOC boasts a fleet of 1,000 rafts, 120 busses and 850 employees during peak season — shepherding 150,000 rafters down the Nantahala and 6 other rivers in the southern mountains each year.

Looking back, Payson said he never doubted their dream would work.

“We could see the people coming off the trips were so exhilarated, and it was growing by word of mouth. So I knew it was a matter of time,” Payson said.

When the Nantahala Outdoor Center was launched in 1972, paddling was still a newfangled sport.

“Very few people paddled. In that era if you saw a car with a boat, you usually knew who it was. It was that small,” said Bunny Johns, one of NOC’s early pioneers who logged nearly three decades at the company.

For paddlers who wanted to eat, sleep and breathe whitewater, NOC stood out. There were only two other river outfitters in the entire Southeast.

“The idea that you could really give of yourself for the betterment of the outdoors and expose more people to the outdoors and make a living doing it was very unique for 1972,” said Joe Jacobi, an Olympic gold medalist who worked at NOC as a dishwasher in the early 1990s and is now the director of USA Whitewater.

Whether it would work as a business or not was somewhat untested, however, and took a hefty dose of idealism by the Kennedy’s and fellow founder Horace Holden.

“You put out your concept and your dream in a unique and engaging way, and you just start,” Jacobi said. “If you think it is worthwhile to take kids down the Nantahala River, you just start doing it — and that’s where the buy-in and appeal came from.”

 

Paddling among the greats

Like so many of NOC’s early pioneers, John Burton gave up a promising, big-city, high-paying career for life on the river. His epiphany came at a rather inopportune time — at the outset of an all-day interview with the investment banking giant Goldman Sachs on Wall Street in the 1970s.

“About an hour into the interviews, I knew I was in the wrong place. I was not motivated by money. I could not go to Wall Street. I said, ‘Well I’ll see you later,’” Burton recalled. “I came to the Outdoor Center because it totally fit with my value set.”

Burton quit his job as an investment advisor making $16,000 a year for a job at NOC that paid just $7,000 a year. Burton had been on the 1972 Olympic team and a member of the U.S. paddling team for four years. More than half his fellow paddlers from that 1972 team — including all three women from the team — had already found their way to NOC.

“It was sort of a network of paddlers. Those who decided we wanted to train, that we wanted to get good at it, NOC was a place where you could get paid to work in the world of paddling and be surrounded by your friends and get paid to be on the river guiding rafts or teaching canoeing,” said Burton.

Burton came along in the nick of time. The skill set NOC needed most, it turned out, wasn’t another paddling pro, but his financial smarts.

“It was a seat-of-the-pants operation for sure,” Burton said, recalling the state of the company’s checkbook and recordkeeping when he came on board in 1975.

Burton quickly became Payson Kennedy’s right-hand man as vice president.

“We were a great team,” Burton said. “He was the philosopher and visionary, and I had the business skill set to support that.”

 

Creating a community

Working at NOC came with sacrifices. The pay was small, hours were long, and the work was seasonal.

The work ethic Payson’s own family exemplified in those earlier years — rising to the occasion and pitching in wherever needed — was expected from everyone.

“Everybody did it all. We washed dishes; we guided rafts; we built the buildings,” Burton said.

But no one seemed to mind, Burton said. Everyone who came to NOC did so for the same reason as the Kennedys.

“When we came up here, it was not a business decision but a lifestyle decision,” Payson said. “We assumed we would make less money than if we stayed in Atlanta, but we would be working with friends who enjoyed the same activities we did.”

It’s one of the lasting legacies from those early years. Everyone can still be called on to pinch hit in any area, no matter what your official job duties are. At 79, Payson can still be found pinch-hitting as a raft guide on busy summer weekends. It extends to the team of new investors who assumed a majority stake in NOC earlier this year.

“If they were here on the weekend and I said, ‘We just had two housekeepers not show up and we have 50 beds to make,’ they would say, ‘I’ll go make beds for you.’ That is so critical,” Burton said. “They aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.”

Forty years ago, the Kennedys’ and Holden’s goal was not necessarily to build one of the world’s premier river outfitters. Instead, they wanted to carve out a place where like-minded river rats could scratch out a modest living doing what they loved — and that they would be in it together.

“From the beginning, that was the guiding the principle, not that some people would be working for the owners, but it would be a community of friends working together,” Payson said.

NOC had the spirit of communal living. Employees were fed through company meal plans and lived in NOC housing quarters. Everyone worked, ate, slept and played alongside each other.

“That community kept us all there,” Johns said.

There was even a daycare for NOC employees with children. Joe Jacobi, who worked at NOC while training for the Olympics in the early 1990s, recalled one of his Olympic teammates who was a daycare worker.

“You had a national champion whitewater kayaker soon to be an Olympian who would work in the daycare taking care of other paddlers’ children. Just think about that for a minute,” Jacobi said. “There was a very tight sense of community. There was a high level of buy in.”

Early on, the company developed an employee-stock plan that would give employees shares in the company. It was a financial benefit, but more so it was a way of creating a sense of buy-in and communal ownership.

While NOC no longer has a corner on the market when it comes to finding jobs in the outdoor industry, it’s still considered among the cream of the crop.

“The Nantahala Gorge is a pretty appealing place for anybody who is interested in a broad range of outdoor opportunities, whether it be paddling, mountain biking, hiking or camping, there is a lot going on in the Gorge,” said Mark Singleton, the head of NOC’s marketing department from 1990 to 2002. Singleton still lives in Jackson County and is the executive director American Whitewater, a national paddling advocacy organization.

 

Seasonal work

To some, the seasonal nature of the job was one of its greatest perks. Footloose and fancy free, summer whitewater guides could take to the ski slopes of the Rockies by winter or travel to South America without being tied down.

“If you don’t have kids and your needs are small, you can make it work,” Johns said.

But the seasonal ebb and flow — being thrust into unemployment six months of the year and struggling to find work — was a deal killer for others, particularly those who wanted to start a family.

“They’ll do it a few years until they want to get married and have kids and then decide they can’t afford to stay. Some do stay and live on the low income and enjoy life but don’t expect to get a whole lot of money,” Payson said. “If the business wasn’t so seasonal, it would be easy. It’s that seasonality that makes it tough to survive.”

NOC can’t entirely shut down in the off-season, of course. A core cadre has to run the place year-round, from marketing to IT to finance to planning out next year’s programs.

Those who stuck around long enough — and had skills deemed useful to the business side of the operation — could sometimes finagle their way into a year-round job.

Such was the case with Wayne Dickert, one of the championship paddlers NOC proudly claimed on its who’s-who of paddling instructors for two decades. When he started in the mid-1980s, however, he was just a lowly seasonal raft guide. Dickert spent his winters working for Silver Creek Paddles, a mom-and-pop company just down the road in the Gorge that made hand-crafted wooden paddles. Never straying far from the paddling arena, he also cobbled together a part-time winter income repairing banged up fiberglass boats and broken paddles.

Why not give up and get a real job?

“I bought into the whole idea and loved being able to give people that outdoor experience,” Dickert said.

 

The “Deliverance” factor

Of all the ingredients that set the stage for NOC’s unprecedented success, none was as unexpected and out of ordinary than the release of the movie “Deliverance” in 1972, set on a rural river not far from the Nantahala. The blockbuster movie catapulted Southern Appalachian paddling into the consciousness of mainstream America and captured the public imagination.

“That gave us a flurry of interest and excitement and attention,” said Payson, who starred as Burt Kennedy’s stunt double in the movie.

Four decades later, paddlers still sport T-shirts that say “Paddle faster, I hear banjo music.”

The movie was a game changer, according to NOC historians.

“It was that spirit of the urban adventurer, and NOC served as a destination point that spoke to that,” Jacobi said.

The same year, whitewater paddling made its debut as an Olympic sport.

Ultimately, the Kennedy’s and Holden had impeccable timing, even though they can’t take credit for planning it that way.

“That is the beauty of it — it is a little bit of a leap of faith,” Jacobi said.

Jacobi sees a parallel in the evolution and rise of NOC to the sport of kayaking.

“When you put a boat on the river, it is kind of like chaos in a controlled environment, and you don’t know every time how it is going to work out, and that is part of the appeal of it,” Jacobi said.

 

Luke-warm welcome

When the Kennedy’s first showed up with their meager collection of rafts hawking guided trips down the river, the rural community where they made their home wasn’t entirely sure what to make of them.

“We were looked at as those weird people,” said Johns. “It has been a gradual process.”

The long hair and beards sported by many of the male paddlers earned them an instant label of hippies in a rural region of Appalachia not exactly known for its liberal leanings.

“Some didn’t like these outsiders coming in,” Payson admitted. It was probably the toughest on his children, who had to leave the protected river community in the Gorge and venture into Bryson City for school.

“For me personally, and I feel just about everybody would agree with this, Bryson City and the Gorge tend to be two different fish bowls,” Dickert said. “There is cross over, they go into each other’s world. The Gorge comes in to do shopping and everything else, but there hasn’t been a lot of social interaction between the two.”

Far from its early days of being ostracized, NOC has become a dominant force in the landscape of Swain County — both economically and socially.

“Carolina Builders I think were the first ones to look at us and say, ‘These people are OK. They pay their bills,’” Johns recalled.

On the business side, NOC was a virtual gravy train, pulling in thousands of tourists ripe for the plucking. NOC rapidly rose in the ranks as a major employer.

“People certainly realized what it meant to this whole area,” Johns said. Kennedy agrees the business community was the first to welcome NOC into the fold.

But, there’s been a social acceptance too — thanks in part to people like Wayne Dickert. Dickert left his job with NOC this year to become the full-time minister of the United Methodist Church in downtown Bryson City.

Dickert is a walking, talking example of what’s likely NOC’s greatest gift to the region: people.

Hundreds of people have come to the mountains to work at NOC, whether for a couple of summers or half their lives like Dickert, and then found their way into the wider community, from construction workers to school teachers.

“As they come out of the Gorge and go into different jobs, it helps cross over the two communities,” Dickert said. “You start to develop relationships and see beyond what labels that might be attached to them.”

On his desk in the church office, a fistful of ballpoint pens baring the name of the church have been stuffed into a stainless steel cup with NOC’s logo — a pointed symbol of how the two worlds of NOC and the greater Swain community have merged.

“That’s been the biggest factor,” Payson Kennedy said of winning the community’s acceptance. “Having employees that decided to stay here and buy homes and build homes and get married and have children in the schools.”

 

Change on the horizon

Keeping up with its own growth was one of the biggest challenges faced by NOC during the first two decades.

The original founders felt at times like they’d jumped on board a runaway train.

“There were some years they intentionally cut back on their marketing efforts because they thought they were growing too big,” Dickert said. “NOC was it. NOC was the place.”

In 1978, six years after its own launch, NOC saw its first competition spring up — and welcomed it.

“At that time interest in whitewater was growing so rapidly, we still had all the business we could handle. It was all about how many guides could we train, how many buses could we add,” Payson recalled.

But as more and more rafting outfitters jostled for a piece of the action, the Nantahala showed signs of stress. Fear that it would become overrun by commercial trips and undermine its very essence prompted the national forest service, which controls most of the land along the river, to cap the number of outfitters in 1984. A new permit system was implemented for paddlers, a move NOC by that time welcomed.

To outsiders, NOC seemed to be rolling in success by the mid-1980s. Tens of thousands of people were flocking in droves to the fabled river outpost. Despite the booming business seen three short months of the year, NOC never stopped fighting and scrapping to ensure its viability.

“NOC has a checkered history. It never made a lot of money,” Johns said. “We struggled some years. We might have an up year one year and plan for another up and it goes down a little bit.”

Margins were always uncomfortably thin, and hiccups could seem like earthquakes. By the mid-1990s, the steady growth enjoyed during the first 25 years began to taper off and NOC entered an era of slow decline.

The list of reasons was long and varied, from forces outside NOC’s control — like the birth of artificial whitewater training centers and a national decline in paddling — to internal decisions, like hanging on to employee perks the company could no longer afford.

By the end of the ‘90s, NOC had posted three years of continuous losses. What worked in the past clearly wasn’t working anymore, but the company’s long-time leaders were reluctant to change.

“They realized we’ve got to change our vision, but they struggled with that and went back and forth a lot,” Dickert said. “They struggled with going from a bunch of cool hippies who hung out at the river and raft-guided, to at some point they grew large enough they had to think like a corporation.”

A tumultuous decade followed, and where the future will end up is still not entirely clear.

The Kennedys and Holden sold their majority stake in the company earlier this year, turning the reins of NOC over to a group of six young businessmen from the Atlanta area — including NOC’s own Sutton Bacon, who has been the CEO for five years. The new owners see NOC as a place to merge their love of outdoor recreation with their business and investment acumen.

Their interest in NOC isn’t entirely business-driven. They are all paddlers. They all have young children. And they all want NOC to be part of their own families’ lives for another 40 years, Sutton said.

While Holden and the Kennedys have kept some of their shares and seats on the board of directors, the changing of the guard clearly marks the end of an era. Money put up by the investors allowed NOC to buy out the remnants of the employee stock plan that had once been a symbol of NOC’s communal philosophy.

For Bacon, the responsibility he and other investors have to steer NOC into the next generation — balancing the financial realities of the times without losing the values that made NOC what it is — is all too real. NOC could not be replicated if starting out today, Bacon said.

“NOC started as a very pioneering young venture with great dreams and aspirations,” said Bacon. “I would say through the determination, wisdom and luck of Horace and Payson and many others, most the those visions came true.”

It was the perfect intersection of time and place — but it’s the unique philosophy planted deep in NOC’s company spirit during the formative years that has set the stage for an enduring legacy.

“No other businessman, and I’ll use that in quotations, would even fathom taking care of the employees and staff and the community and putting himself last and profit last as Payson Kennedy did,” Bacon said. “There is nothing like NOC — I have traveled and looked.”

 

Coming next week: NOC reinvented

The Nantahala Outdoor Center rose rapidly from a scrappy operation spawned by idealistic river rats in the 1970s to one of the largest and most renowned outfitters in the country. Now in its 40th year, NOC has struggled during the past decade to reconcile its founding philosophy with changing economic realities.

See The Smoky Mountain News next week for a look at factors behind NOC’s most tumultuous decade and its next generation.

Organizers of the World Freestyle Kayaking Championship in 2013 have a short-term fix for getting telecommunication capabilities into the Nantahala Gorge, but have yet to find a long-term solution for business owners and residents there.

BalsamWest FiberNet, a company jointly owned by Macon County businessman Phil Drake and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, has already dug in fiber along the railroad tracks traversing the steep-walled gorge. It is part of the 225 miles of fiber built and owned by BalasmWest in this section of Western North Carolina. BalsamWest currently provides the Nantahala Outdoor Center, located along the railroad tracks, with high-speed connectivity to the outside world. The service isn’t inexpensive and other businesses in that remote area west of Bryson City haven’t been as lucky.

BalsamWest CEO Cecil Groves said that the fiber company could, however, provide 21st-century internet for everyone’s use during the games. This service will be available only on a temporary basis, he said last week.

“We can’t do it permanently, but we can for that short amount of time,” Groves said. “Once this is over, there’s not enough demand for us, or probably another carrier, to bring (the technology) fulltime. But for the event, we can help.”

BalsamWest’s willingness to hookup the Gorge might literally be saving the event for organizers of the kayaking freestyle world championship.

Ten thousand visitors a day are predicted to descend into the gorge Sept. 2-8, 2013, including reporters from around the world, to see the ICF Freestyle World Championships. And before that, the kayaking Junior World Cup will take place in September 2012  — with 5,000 to 6,000 people a day expected.

Without broadband, reporters will be unable to cover the competition, which has a major following in Europe.

During the search for serial bomber Eric Robert Rudolph, when dozens of news organizations from across the nation and beyond swooped into the region to cover the manhunt, only one news organization had the technology to communicate from the Gorge area. There was suspicion then that Rudolph, who was later captured in Murphy while pilfering a grocery store Dumpster for leftovers, was holed up in one of the caves dotting the landscape of the Gorge.

CNN reporters had a van equipped with a satellite phone, allowing them to keep viewers somewhat abreast of events that didn’t develop as the manhunt dragged on (for a long five years or so during the late 1990s). They’d occasionally loan the phone out to desperate colleagues affiliated with other news organizations, who needed to alert their editors of Rudolph’s non-capture, too.

The situation hasn’t advanced much in the intervening decade for business owners and members of the Nantahala community such as Juliet Kastorff, owner of Endless Rivers Adventures, a whitewater rafting company. Kastorff is helping to organize the world championship. She said that one of the commitments made by the organizing committee was to develop a long-term economic incentive for helping to host the championships — broadband capability was chosen.

“It is disappointing,” Kastorff said. “When the event is over, there will still be nothing there for the community — we are the last mile, literally and figuratively, for North Carolina.”

There’s not likely to be an easy answer anytime soon for the seven or so miles of dead zone. Enter the Nantahala Gorge, and cell phones and internet connections stop, the result of the steep, rocky walled gorge-area blocking modern communication abilities.

Rafting outfitters in the Nantahala Gorge have arrived at a compromise with summer camps and colleges vying for the chance to take kids down the Nantahala River without going through an existing commercial outfitter.

The U.S. Forest Service issues only a limited number of permits for commercial traffic on the river. Camps and colleges that don’t have a permit but want to take their kids paddling have to sign up for a trip with one of the outfitters.

A coalition of summer camps and colleges want to use their own staff, however, which often includes experienced paddlers, and avoid paying a commercial outfitter for the service of a down-river escort. They asked the forest service to up the number of permits issued on the river, setting off a months-long debate over how to balance demand on the Nantahala.

During the thick of summer tourist season, outfitter traffic on the Nantahala is akin to finely tuned, well-oiled clock gears.

An average of 200,000 people a year ran the Nantahala over the last five years — most of that crammed into a mere three months. Between 85 and 90 percent of river traffic is with a commercial outfitter, according to the forest service.

Moving thousands of rafters on and off the river in a day is no small feat given the narrow road, dearth of parking and cramped put-ins and take-outs.

While Nantahala Outdoor Center has its own take-out on its property, the rest of the raft outfitters share two take-outs.

Guides must get their loads of giddy and adrenaline-pumped rafters to the shore, out of their boat, out of their life jackets, then onto a bus — plus the rafts strapped on top — within 10 minutes to make room for the next bus waiting in the wings.

“We all work together to make sure that we are not clogging these places up. We understand the importance to make sure things move smoothly. It is a concerted effort,” said Kevin Gibbs, CEO of Wildwater and president of the Nantahala Gorge Association, an affiliation of rafters.

The same goes for put-ins, which are equally short on space.

The forest service initially considered granting up to 36 new commercial permits — compared to the 16 they have now. Doing so would have also opened the door for new commercial outfitters — not just camps and colleges — to start doing business on the Nantahala.

Rafting outfitters feared an influx of camps, colleges and new commercial guides running their own trips down the river would create an untenable free-for-all.

Guides unaccustomed to the hustle of the river would clog up the works. And guides unfamiliar with the river’s more treacherous spots could also pose safety risks, the existing outfitters argued, pointing to Big Wesser Falls just downstream of the commercial take-out.

“If you miss the take-out, you are going to want to paddle really, really hard to get to shore because there is a very large rapid just below it that no one paddles commercially,” Gibbs said. “It is very difficult, and it can be very dangerous. That is one of our initial concerns.”

 

Yes to kayaks, no to rafts

After studying the issue for much of the last year, the forest service decided against new commercial permits for raft trips, it announced last week.

But the forest service did make a concession that pleases camps and colleges. The forest service will issue a dozen new permits for guided kayak and canoe trips on the river. The permits will only be good Monday through Thursday, however, avoiding the busy weekends. Group size and the number of trips a year are also limited for those seeking the new permits.

Mike Wilkins, chief forest ranger for the Nantahala District, said the facilities and infrastructure in the Gorge simply can’t accommodate more traffic.

“It is really hard to move lots of people in and out quickly,” Wilkins said.

Both the outfitters and camps say the decision strikes a balance between giving camps more flexibility to take their own kids down the river yet guarding against the type of mayhem outfitters feared.

“I think that Mike listened to everybody’s concerns, not just the folks interested in coming here but the folks who are already here,” Gibbs said.

Wilkins said he wasn’t exactly aiming for a compromise, although that’s what it’s being called.

“I don’t know about a compromise but I was trying to weigh all the factors,” Wilkins said. “I guess in my mind, I wasn’t as concerned about the purely recreational use as the ability to give young people instruction.”

Wilkins didn’t want to deny a summer camp from teaching its kids how to paddle on the river.

After all Sutton Bacon, the CEO of NOC, first learned how to kayak at summer camp.

“We can all personally attest to the value of being introduced to whitewater paddling on the Nantahala at a young age,” Bacon said. “To that end, NOC strongly supports the use of the Nantahala River by a wide variety of groups and camps that expose young people to whitewater paddle sports.”

Gordon Strayhorn, president of the N.C. Youth Camp Association, said the new permits should satisfy camps for the most part. Camps are primarily interested in taking their kids kayaking and canoeing anyway — not rafting, Strayhorn said.

Strayhorn, who is the head of Camp Illahee, said paddling has been part of their summer camp program for decades. “Organized youth summer camps have been using the Nantahala River for more than 60 years and represented the first recreational use of the river, long before permits and outfitters existed,” Strayhorn said.

They have forest service permits on every other river in the region — French Broad, Ocoee, Chattooga, Nolichucky and the Pigeon. The Nantahala was the only they couldn’t run with their own guides but instead had to go through a commercial outfitter, he said.

Strayhorn said the forest service was right to open up new permits on the Nantahala.

 

River squatters

One logistical concern still troubles the outfitters, however. Unlike the outfitters, camps and colleges don’t have a home base in the Gorge. Where will their van drivers park for three hours while their students run the river? Where will they change into dry clothes afterward?  Where will they use the bathroom?

“Several business owners are concerned these people would come and stop at their outposts,” Gibbs said.

As the largest outfitter in the Gorge and with prime real estate on both sides of the river near the take-out, Nantahala Outdoor Center would likely be a prime target. NOC CEO Sutton Bacon doesn’t want their campus to become a staging area for other groups. Not when parking in the Gorge is at such a premium.

“Of course, we want to be as welcoming as possible, but it is also unfair to expect NOC to bear the entire burden of providing public access for all of these groups, especially if it means there is not enough parking for our own guests,” Bacon said.

That remains one of the biggest outstanding issues: what facilities will these groups use if they don’t go through an outfitters? Bacon said NOC is already getting queries from camps wondering whether they could use NOC as a staging area. But striking deals with up to a dozen individual camps or colleges would be challenging.

Bacon thinks a better solution would be giving an umbrella permit to the Youth Camp Association. NOC could then negotiate usage of its facilities with just one entity. And with one umbrella permit for all the camps, they could better divvy up use on the river to avoid all coming on the same day.

 

River economics

Outfitters downplayed their financial motive in opposing new commercial permits on the river. But they admitted that there is not an unlimited amount of rafting business on the river.

Wilkins said economic concerns among existing outfitters partly weighed into his decision not to allow new commercial raft companies but instead limit new permits to guided canoe and kayak trips. He realizes the existing outfitters have a lot at stake.

Outfitters made approximately $2.8 million on guided trips on the Nanty in fiscal year 2010, based on forest service data. The number only includes revenue on river trips — not T-shirts, food sales and other purchases rafters likely make.

Outfitters pay 3 percent of revenue made on guided trips to the forest service for a commercial permit.

Outfitters will obviously lose some revenue once camps can take their own kids down river. But Strayhorn said the economic benefits outweigh it.

“I don’t think camps being permitted on the river will negatively impact the economy of the region at all. I think it will improve it,” Strayhorn said.

Summer camps in Jackson, Buncombe, Transylvania and Henderson counties alone have a combined economic impact of $365 million, according to an economic impact study by N.C. State University, he said.

 

Out in the cold

The decision will essentially put an end to teaching trips the Carolina Canoe Club historically led on the Nantahala, according to Spencer Muse, president of the Carolina Canoe Club.

The Carolina Canoe Club holds paddling workshops and rescue training on the Nantahala River for its 1,000 members. Since participants pay to go on the trips, it counts as a commercial operation and thus needs a permit.

Supportive of the club’s mission, Nantahala Outdoor Center used to let the club do its trips under the auspice of NOC’s permit. But the forest service put an end to that three years ago.

Lacking a commercial permit of its own, Carolina Canoe Club stopped charging its members for the courses so it didn’t count as a commercial trip. But the club can’t indefinitely bear the cost of hosting the trips without being able to charge those who come, Muse said.

Muse said the handful of new permits the forest service has agreed to issue are useless for his group since they aren’t valid on weekends. The club has always done its trips on weekends — since the people going on them as well as the instructors have jobs.

Muse said the club only goes on two trips a year, and would be willing to do them outside the peak summer season, such as early May or mid-September, when crowding isn’t an issue.

“We are only talking about two weekends a year we use the Nantahala,” Muse said.

If they can’t find a solution, the club will likely move its paddling instruction weekends to the Gauley River.

“It is a little odd to have West Virginia be the location for Carolina Canoe Club’s main teaching activities,” Muse said.

 

 

How permits on the Nantahala work

Commercial outfitters must have a permit from the forest service to run raft trips on the Nantahala River. The same goes for a guide leading a group of kayakers — or even escorting a single kayaker for a paddling lesson — if money is exchanging hands.

But if your buddy owns a raft and offers to take you and a few friends on a trip down the Nanty and he doesn’t charge you for it, no commercial permit is required.

The number of outfitters on the river has dropped over the years, along with the number of permits. As outfitters have gone out of business, the forest service closed out their permit rather than opening it up to new takers.

Ten years ago, there were 21 commercial permits. Today, there are only 16.

Most permits are held by commercial raft companies, but a few do belong to institutions. Western Carolina University has a permit, for example, and is able to teach paddling to its students on the river without going through an outfitter.

 

By the numbers

12: outfitters based in the Gorge

16: permits to entities operating commercial trips on the river

200,000: people going down the river each year

90: percent of river traffic that goes through an outfitter

An overwhelming majority of citizens who showed up at a public hearing in Robbinsville spoke out against the Corridor K road project last Thursday (Oct. 29).

The proposed four-lane highway would supplant the winding, two-lane roads that are currently the only means of access to Graham County. In the process, it would bore a half-mile long tunnel — the longest in the state — through a mountain. It would also tower over the rural Stecoah Valley area.

Corridor K, a 127-mile route through the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, has been in the works for more than three decades. The DOT wants to start construction by 2014 on a 10-mile section of the 17-mile missing link in Graham County.

The road’s three goals are to bring economic development, end a geographic isolation N.C. DOT sees as dangerous, and improve steep and curvy roads that currently feature inadequate shoulders.

The highway would take the thousands of tractor-trailers out of the Nantahala Gorge, which is currently the main artery to reach Murphy but is clogged with buses loaded with rafters and kayakers.

David Monteith, a Swain County commissioner, said the new highway would increase tourism in Swain County, bringing more people in to raft the Nantahala and ride the train.

“It would bring in more people to Western North Carolina, period,” said Monteith.

But only two of the 22 speakers at the N.C. Department of Transportation hearing piped up in favor of the road. The rest enumerated every conceivable reason for why the road has no place in Graham County.

Bob Grove said the proposed roadway would not help Graham County’s economy. It would more likely provide easy access to a big-box chain stores like Wal-Mart than to downtown stores. For Grove, the highway provides an open invitation to local residents to head out of town to do their shopping.

Grove and many others suggested that it would be far less expensive and less destructive to improve the existing roads, rather than build a highway that would destroy the town’s main draw for tourists: scenic, winding two-lane roads.

Tom Hoffman of Virginia said he might stop coming to Graham County if the highway is built and that he would not return to “ooh and aah at a freeway interchange.”

Many voiced concerns about Robbinsville losing its rural character and transforming into yet another American “Clonesville,” with strip malls, billboards and fast-food chains lining the streets.

Others who objected said second home owners, who would surely come with the highway, would jack up tax values and drive out today’s local residents.

“It’s a euphemistic thing to be calling it economic development,” said Brian Rau of Stecoah. “To me, it’s just plain development.”

The issue hit close to home for Guy Roberts, who would lose the property that’s been in his family for five generations and more than a hundred years.

“We would like to preserve what is there for future generations,” said Roberts’ son-in-law Jeff Phillips. “I want to be able to fish with my grandchildren and have horses and cows they can play with. I want to be there for the rest of my life.”

A telling example of Graham County’s position came at two points in the night. Nearly everybody raised their hands when asked if they were against the road. When Melbe Millsaps asked who actually worked in Graham County, only a handful went up.

Millsaps said even though Corridor K would cut through her property, it would also provide more jobs and better access to education and healthcare for Graham County. Millsaps said she knows how dangerous the roads there can be after being forced to commute two hours each way to get to her nursing school.

“I think it’s time for Graham County to move into the 21st century and build the road,” Millsaps said.

Denny Mobbs, who lives in Ocoee, Tenn., agreed and said it’s time to bring some development into Graham County.

“We don’t want a pristine impoverishment,” said Mobbs.

Others worried about the road’s environmental impact, including air, noise and water pollution. The tunnel, which would be a major expense of the project, avoids the Appalachian Trail by going under it.

Melanie Mayes, a Knoxville geologist, said the N.C. DOT had not released any information about the possibility of landslides and acid leaching out of rocks.

Mayes pointed out that there was not even a single geologic map on the environmental impact study that was released. When Lewis said the N.C. DOT would give her all that information, Mayes retorted that it should have been released long ago.

Graham County Commissioner Steve Odom reminded citizens that even though Corridor K is controversial, they should realize that the county’s roads do need to be fixed in some way.

“It’s dangerous, I tell you,” said Odom. “You folks have a lot to debate, but we have some immediate needs, too.”

 

Weigh in on Corridor K

Let the N.C. DOT know what you think about the Corridor K Project by Dec. 4.

Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or write to Ed Lewis, NCDOT - Human Environment Unit; 1598 Mail Service Center; Raleigh, NC 27699-1598.

The Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tour will debut this month with a half-mile series of forest-enveloped ziplines, where people hang from a harness and slide along an overhead cable strung between platforms and trees. The course zigzags over 20 acres and takes about three hours to traverse. There are 11 zip line sections and various sky bridges to get from platform to platform.

Canopy Rangers accompany each group on a tour, coaching them on the techniques of the zip line as well as teaching them about the multiple ecosystems they pass through and the cultural history of the area.

The canopy tour is on the property of Wildwater LTD Rafting. The outfitter also has yurt lodging on the property called Falling Waters Adventure. Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tours is a stand-alone company but is a partner with Wildwater LTD Rafting.

Canopy tours are a popular tourist destination in South and Latin America, but this will be the first one to crop up on the WNC side of the Smokies. It will launch on July 10.

The canopy tour could mean a tourism boost for the Gorge, giving people a new reason to visit aside from the long-standing draw of whitewater rafting. The addition of mountain biking trails by Nantahala Outdoor Center has also expanded adventure offerings in the Gorge, along with the standard mountain fare of hiking, fishing and exploring.

The canopy tour should appeal to an variety of audiences. It combines the sheer rush of a zip line with ecosystem education — a genuine eco-tourism attraction.

Each tour-goer is equipped with a helmet, full body harness, trolley, gloves, and a tether safety line.

Wildwater Ltd. started its operations in 1971 on the Chattooga River. Since then the company expanded its whitewater rafting to four other rivers in the southeast and offer several outdoor adventure firsts: the first on the Chattooga River, the first to offer the Raft & Rail Excursion with the Great Smoky Mountains

Railroad and the first Yurt-specific lodging in the southeast.

 

Canopy Tour specs

To go on the Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tour you have to be 10 years old or 70 pounds. Maximum weight is 250 pounds.

Participants will move through the canopy tour in groups of up to 12 accompanied by two canopy rangers. Trip times are scheduled 45 minutes apart to allow for separation between groups.

Cost is $69 a person, with discounts for groups. 877.247.5535 or www.nantahalagorgecanopytours.com.

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